Posted on January 5, 2020
The venue certainly was nothing to write a blog about. And, I definitely didn’t RSVP “will attend” for the promise of chicken wings and ribs. Anyway, how do you eat those things while working a crowd? Despite decades of insouciant memory high jinx about my high school years, I finally and somewhat emphatically announced to my long-time posse of 4th-grade buddies that I wasn’t going to miss this 50-year salute to being one of the survivors of my high school class of 1969. I may decline that finger food at the buffet, but I would need that cocktail.
As the soiree’s fall date approached, the wunderkinds who were orchestrating the weekend’s jamboree began sending out emails asking those of us who apparently had a viable email address to supply missing addresses of renegades with whom we might be in touch (rumor had it my English teacher, Mr. Blake, might show up! How is that possible?). On that missing persons’ list were people I would have suspected of going underground. Or, there were culprits who may have determined that their perch above planet ordinary-life was not worthy of rubbing elbows with us hoi polloi. Nobody, I’m sure, was so far off the grid that they didn’t own a computer. Well, ok. Maybe THAT guy. But, aside from him, if people wanted to be found they were ferreted out. Along with a website devoted to our class with both a photo of a team mascot that I had no memory of as well as a few snaps in which a meager assortment of classmates were doing the twist, the reunion committee stalwarts supplied directions to the evening gathering as well as other activities planned for the weekend.
Amidst the gleeful excitement radiating from the reunion committee was the link to those classmates who were now deceased. I referred to it as The Dead List. Its very presence brought my posse and me to our knees. So many gone! When did they die and how? Not her? Could he really be dead? That Dead List was my call to arms and the reason I went to the reunion. I showed up that night not just as a member of the class of 1969 but more crucially as one of its survivors.
After all, if Mr. Blake could make the Herculean effort…
A couple of my closest girlfriends and I agreed that we would arrive together and escort ourselves past the first-floor honky-tonk bar scene whose patrons were clearly the age of our own adult children. We ascended the dank and narrow stairwell–the carpeting on the stairs looked as if it too was rolled out in 1969. I wondered if my classmates would reveal themselves to me as equally worn and threadbare. We arrived at the stairs’ landing and immediately our threesome was accosted by a pack of giddy women whose smiles or voices or gestures were utterly recognizable and yet unidentifiable. The little grandma of a lady, whom I recognized as the wispy, tiny blonde vixen of yesteryear cleaved a path where the three of us stood and from that moment, each of us were atoms split apart from our private orbit around our own galaxy. From here on out and as we were to slog through the night, we took solace knowing that we would meet up again the next day to rehash the evening’s unfolding events.
At the sign-in table, one of the earnest greeters asked for my name and proceeded to recite his autobiography: semi-retired except for occasionally narrating audio books and coaching his grandchild’s soccer team. I think he said he also drove the school bus, but my nerves were on edge and sensory overload (is that a disco ball hanging there?) limited my auditory channels. He lived in the Midwest and was divorced. So, he added, available. I hadn’t changed AT ALL, he lied. He asked me when I had cut my hair (my hair was legendary and also it became clear as the evening proceeded that it was the only memorable thing about me). He spryly wiped the spittle from the corners of his mouth and quickly ran through my to-do list…sign in, take my name tag (with the unfamiliar last name of my salad days), affix the small tag with my black-and-white senior photograph on it (the photo of an eager-to-please senior girl with long hair and bony shoulders wearing the requisite crew-neck dark sweater). There was a pearl necklace hanging around my youthful and taut neck. I remembered that the photographer had each girl wear the same professionally supplied necklace which his assistant fastened with a safety pin.
The evening was mercifully shy on 60’s-themed décor (except for the disco ball visage). It could have been bad: tie-dyed banners, psychedelic-colored puffy flower graphics, doves and peace signs and so on. The festive atmosphere was instead supplied by over 150 68-year-olds strutting their stuff like wizened peacocks. Most of us dressed in what I would call cocktail casual. A few optimistic women donned flowy dresses and sleeveless tops and a surprising number of attendees dressed as if they didn’t have a chance to change after being at Costco all day. Surprisingly little face work was apparent and anyway it would have paled in comparison to the pillowy bellies and ebbing hairlines of my fellow attendees.
It’s called Memory Lane for a reason. If you start your journey down a lane, say, versus a road you might be in more of a contemplative and reflective mood. Thus, a lane traveler is apt to be a sole traveler on the trek—gazing at and pondering the beatific surroundings and one’s own relationship to that environment. You might take your time—stroll, if you will. If I were on a road instead of a lane, it might occur to me to hustle along and in fact be tempted to cross it just to get to the other side. If I haven’t yet lost you on this somewhat belabored metaphor, let me get straight to the point: At the reunion, where my powers of recall were being strained to its limits, Memory Lane met up with a traffic jam of such proportions that I couldn’t stay in my sweet little lane at all. I would FINALLY connect the person’s face to their senior portrait and steal a glance at their nametag only to discover that I was in conversation with the spouse of the senior whose picture was on display. My brain was no longer on my country-lane amble. I had hit a traffic circle. Around and around I went searching for a way to make some sense of the chaos.
All 150 of us reunion guests were seekers; some of us eager to catch a glimpse of someone not only familiar to us but someone with whom we had, at one time and only during a 4-year span, a significant connection with. Like the dude at the hospitality desk, some were eager to spew their accomplishments or worse (much worse) their kids’ accomplishments. Others appeared excited to talk about retirement and their second, more successful marriages. Still others regaled listeners with a litany of medical woes and sad demises of fellow classmates. A few found Jesus; that’s when I stayed in my own lane and took the closest escape route.
The bar, not surprisingly, was a popular junction. I had my best conversations there. A few of the attendees had started drinking long before arriving at the reunion and a couple of those guys found me, as a result of their private happy hour, to be ravishing. Nothing wrong with a bit of hyperbole but lying is another thing. The same guys, by the way, who kept talking about my hair.
I suppose what all of us who were assembled in that space were searching for was a glimpse of how others saw us as young people before we even knew ourselves. Listening to someone tell me how I helped her survive an English class or how much my mother made her laugh transformed a short conversation into an eddy of emotion. It worked both ways, of course. I was finally able to share with one man (who was a girl when her locker was next to mine) that because of her I survived P.E. with some semblance of self worth. And, we moved quickly through that conversation not because he was loathe to talk about his sexual metamorphosis but because he wanted to show me photos of his 3 (high successful, of course!) children and his wife. I just wanted to kiss his bearded cheek and thank him for picking me for his team. Whether we played baseball or field hockey, being on his team meant 1) I never had to lift a finger, a stick, a paddle and 2) we always won.
There were plentiful opportunities to chat with strangers with whom I had, long ago, been close. In fact, everyone of us there that night had been part of a universe inhabited only by us classmates. Sure, there were teachers and parents but every weekday for four years, we were in close physical and psychological quarters where our very existence was defined by our relationships with one another. For all but the most confident and self assured (maybe there were 2 or 3?), our sense of self was gleaned from our reflection we saw in others. Ours was a heightened awareness of other—from our popularity status to our intellectual strata to our sexual explorations with each other—we traveled in unison unaware of each other’s private lives, personal challenges and, certainly, future plans. I doubt that many of us realized that the future was not a given—I for one, had no concept of how to forge ahead past the next essay or exam or school dance. Summer vacations loomed large come spring, but once in the midst of a hot, dry summer’s day those of us lucky enough to escape the monotony of jobs like babysitting, paper routes, or pumping gas were eager for the new school year to begin. Beginning the new year meant presenting oneself as the new, improved and naturally more popular version of the previous year’s persona.
From 1965 to 1969, the world was spinning at warp speed; a grizzly war was being televised, race riots were shredding apart cities, mind-bending drugs were omnipresent, boys’ hair was getting longer and girls’ skirts were scooting upward. But our high school class seemed to travel en masse through the hallways and into the classrooms with an oddly robotic predictability. Or so it seemed to me. Despite tumultuous current events, we teenagers clung to each other without knowing why, and yet we were excruciatingly aware that to be alone meant uncertainty and even worse, social suicide. Maybe our lives were not as frenetic as those of today’s teens. The lack of social media certainly slowed down the gossip streams and lessened the instantaneous rebukes. But as I recall, passing notes to one another could precipitate any number of fatal outcomes from being reprimanded by the Dean of Girls if caught in the act of note swapping or, and this was much worse, having the wad of paper usurped by some punk who would then reveal it to a pack of giggling adolescents. Believe me, the shame of one’s private notes going public was gut wrenching and demoralizing. If we weren’t busy trying to separate ourselves from one another for the sake of popularity or individuality, we were mostly united over the sameness of our surroundings. Or so it seemed. We had fewer choices available so that all of us tuned into the same TV shows which we watched on TV sets that looked like our neighbors’, listened to the same British rock bands on our omnipresent AM/FM clock radios (or at the beach on our transistor radios), saw the same movies at the one movie theatre in town, and read the same magazines and as a result coveted the same hairdos and smeared on similar versions of white-colored lipsticks. All of us had to wait by the kitchen-wall phone for that important someone to call. If you weren’t home, you missed your chance. Destinies were forever altered by an unanswered phone. Even worse, your parents might answer.
It was when we spun off from the herd, at the end of the school day, that we each retreated into homes that could be widely disparate from even our best friends’ family lives. Not very far into my freshman year, my mother had died and I convinced myself that no one at school could possibly empathize with my heartache and loneliness. But some friends were stoicly coping with a missing parent as a result of alcoholism. I learned of abuse, neglect and corporal punishment at the hands of tyrannical parents. I heard about adult infidelities and loss of jobs. Not all of us were Christian either. I came from a Jewish household as did only a few of us. There were a couple of Mormons on my street; a weirdo Unitarian brood lived down the block. And, there was one black girl who rode my school bus. Was she even in my class? Funny, she was the most invisible teenager of all.
Within the walls of our reunion venue, the memories bounced around like bumper cars veering and careening off of each of us as we shared what we needed to say to each other. We were questioning our own versions of the truth as we regaled one another with events that we had in common. It was a Venn diagram where there was my truth, your truth, and the intersection where the real facts lie. The odd thing was that every once in awhile someone would come up to me who was completely unrecognizable—even after making small talk and allowing a quick second to align the senior photo with the name tag—and shared a poignant memory with me. How disconcerting to be recalled with tenderness and recollect absolutely nothing.
There is no moral to having experienced this event. But there is this: Rarely does the past collide with the present in real time. On a balmy September evening this past year, a bunch of adults came to together to experience who we were and who we became precisely because we moved through the past together. We are all versions of each other. I was so happy I went. I had the opportunity to thank one person for being the best first boyfriend a girl could ask for; I was able to say to another that I hoped my sons would turn out like him; I told one woman that her mother had taken me shopping for a strapless bra she thought I needed for my prom dress and her daughter had never known this; I could ask my neighbors whatever happened to their parents whom I adored…and I could show off my very short hair and let people know once and for all that there’s more to me than my long locks.